This post is a mixture of story, advice, and techy-setups, sprawling 2-years working from home, 3-years coworking, and then another 3-years working from home. It’s meant to be light-hearted but useful.
Starting My Business
When I started my business in 2011, I didn’t have any funding or savings to help me. I literally started with nothing – no money for a separate office, furniture, or phone line. The only option was to work from my home.
I had a computer already: a base-model 2009 iMac, and an internet connection. I was fortunate enough to be one of the first in my area to sign-up for BT’s then-new Infinity FTTC/VDSL service which provided about 35Mb/s down and a few Mb/s up – more than enough for 2011-era, mostly still desktop-only, web design. Previous to this, I was on a slow ADSL connection maxing out at 3Mb/s down.
I worked from this little under-the-stairs cubby, on the route through the living room to the kitchen, from February 2011 to November 2012. After a holiday to New York in October 2012 (during Hurricane Sandy), I decided I needed a more dedicated space. I took my business seriously but this set-up, whilst cute and cosy, never felt particularly serious. So I cleared some space in the spare room of our 2-bedroom rented house, and moved my stuff up there.
This was a huge improvement! Less distractions, more physical separation between work (spare room) and home (rest of the house), which meant I could shut the door at the end of my working hours and call it a day.
Tip 1: Find a Space
Dedicated space is important. Distraction-free, uninterrupted, dedicated space is ideal.
It was around October/November 2012 though that I noticed my mental state start to decline. I was less happy and whilst everything was fine all around me, I felt a bit like I lived life in a bubble. My entire life existed around the rooms of my house and garden only. I went food shopping with my girlfriend (now wife) once a week and we went out, usually walking, at the weekends. But this wasn’t entirely fulfilling. In the years since, I have boiled this down to one simple thing: I just didn’t do enough. I didn’t see enough people, I didn’t do enough things, I didn’t go enough places outside of the house – I didn’t challenge myself.
This has largely stuck with me, but I’m better at it now and I know what to look out for so that I can keep on top of my mental well-being. Some things I did at the time to help were to spend an hour cycling each day and try and see more friends in the evenings and at the weekends.
Tip 2: See People
If you work from home, book in time to spend with other people, as often as you can but at least once a week. It’ll pay off in the long run and your mental health will thank you.
In July 2013, on the hottest day of the year, my girlfriend and I were able to live out a 2-year dream of moving to Bath. We rented an old stone cottage on the outskirts of the city which was cold and damp, but homely. The office was set-up in the spare bedroom but I only worked out of it for about a week.
Whilst organising the move, I discovered, by way of the internet, a brand-new coworking space, called ‘The Guild‘, that was being created right in the centre of Bath. It was due to open the week we moved so after a few days of unpacking boxes, I took a bus into the city centre and went to take a look. I loved it. The owner showed me around and I decided, there and then that it was going to be the best thing I could do for myself and my business moving forward. I signed up the following day to their ‘Unlimited’ plan, which gave me as much time as I needed there, 24hr access, and discounts on meeting rooms. Not sure on my member number but I know it’s greater than 1 and less than 10. They now have hundreds of members.
Every day, in every weather imaginable, from August 2013 to June 2016, I cycled to The Guild. In the morning, the journey was made down a steep hill and only took 10-minutes. On the way home in the afternoon, it took considerably longer. After 3-months, I was quite fit and healthy.
Over time, I upgraded my plan to a permanent desk in the main coworking room which meant I could also upgrade my working set-up considerably. The move to a coworking space meant that I sold my iMac and bought the highest-spec mid-2013 MacBook Air that I could afford, which I loved. I bought a better second screen, a Hermann Miller Aeron chair, an IKEA motorised sit-standing desk (all of which I still use today), and other bits and pieces to make working more comfortable.
I am convinced that getting myself into a routine of getting up, having breakfast, exercising by cycling to and from a workplace, making new friends, having face-to-face meetings with clients, and getting involved in the community was the best thing I could have done for my business and my mental health at this time. I became a lot happier and my turnover grew very quickly, particularly from 2014 onwards, and allowed me to propose to my girlfriend, get married, start a family, and save to buy a house, all in the space of 3-years.
Tip 3: Routine
Create a routine. Routines are great. If you didn’t work from home you’d have one, so make one, even if it’s really simple.
Tip 4: Meet New People
If you can find some kind of local community that shares a common interest, try it out. Whether this is coworking or a hobby, it will help you.
In June 2016, we bought our first house, moving out of Bath to an area that was more affordable and allowed us to buy a much bigger place than we initially expected (detached, 3-bedrooms), whilst still keeping within 20-minutes drive of the city centre. This added a considerable amount of time to my daily commute though, pushing the time up from ~30-minutes of cycling a day to ~2-hours with a clothes changes at either end. This wasn’t all bad at first – it was Summer and the new route took me through the Two Tunnels: a stunning old railway line that is now a shared-use path. The longer of the two tunnels, which takes nearly 10-minutes to cycle through, even has lights and music! After 4-months, despite looking particularly slim, I was getting fed up of the long journey. Particularly the one home. I started to miss out on things like my daughter’s bath or bed times and the colder weather was creeping in. After much thought, in October 2016, I decided to move my office back home, once again utilising the spare room (third bedroom) as my dedicated space. In the end, I did this for a few reasons:
- More control over my working environment – light, heat, office equipment.
- Get back 2-hours a day from commuting.
- More time to see and spend with my family, particularly supporting my wife in the morning and late afternoon/evening.
- Being a parent of young children means less sleep. Napping during my lunch break became a possibility.
- Catch-up on TV shows (or watch shows my wife didn’t) during my lunch break.
- Better choice of affordable lunches.
- Wear more comfortable clothes to work.
I kept my membership at the coworking space on one of their cheaper yearly plans so I could maintain that connection with seeing other people, chatting with the friends that I had made there, and going to the events that they occasionally put on. They do some awesome Christmas and Summer Parties! I still work from The Guild almost every Friday.
Working from Home (again)
I made sure I tried or practised everything on the list above, more-or-less as soon as I moved my office back home. I also got into running (I’ve run on and off for years) and would run 5K 4/5-times a week in order to keep my fitness up. I’ve never found that exercising provides that ‘secret elixir’ that people rave about however, if I see physical results in myself, this often makes me happier. I got into meditation and did this religiously for the first half of 2017. I’ve not always kept this up but I try and get back into it periodically. I used this at the end of my day to create a mental barrier between work time and home time, and I found this worked well.
Tip 5: Exercise
If you work from home, try and maintain some form of exercise. It may or may not provide the physical results, but it can provide the mental ones.
Tip 6: Try Meditation
If you don’t do it already, give it a go. I recommend the Headspace app.
For the first time, as the spare room was entirely my own space, it meant I could do some more fun things with it, like hang a TV (for displaying business stats) on the wall, and put a reading chair in the corner for catching up on articles.
This was around the time that I started getting into making videos and flexing my editing skills. It also meant my MacBook Air wasn’t powerful enough any more and I upgraded to a fully specced-out, Late-2017 MacBook Pro. Which I love, but not as much as I loved my MacBook Air.
In February 2018, I made an office tour video and uploaded it to YouTube. Not sure how I managed it but it’s had over 100k views!
This was followed shortly after by an update video with a few changes that I made in Summer 2018. My current working set-up has largely gone unchanged since then.
Building My Own Office
In August 2018, my wife and I announced that we were expecting another baby. This meant they would eventually need the office (third bedroom) as their room. As I had no intention of moving my office away from home again, after many, many, many (months of) evenings of spreadsheets, internet research, and watching YouTube videos about it all, I came to the conclusion that I should build an office in the back garden. In my mind, building one was a lot cheaper and a more fulfilling experience than buying a pre-manufactured one.
This was a huge undertaking which involved applying for planning permission, extending our garden, putting in new fences and putting down a hardcore base for underneath the building, all before any money was spent on the materials (or tools) needed for building the office itself.
Over the course of 6-months, from January to June 2019, I built, with no previous construction knowledge, my garden office in the bottom corner of my back garden.
The room is 3 x 2.5 x 2.5 meters in external size, which translates to 2.8 x 2.3 x 2.12 meters internally. The floor, walls, and roof are all well insulated with PIR insulation. It has a large double glazed window and a fully-glass double glazed door to the front. It has a rubber roof, anthracite grey features, and Siberian Larch tongue and groove external cladding. It has painted plywood internal walls and ceiling, and wooden flooring. It’s fully kitted out with no less than seven internal double plug sockets, two external double plug sockets, two lights on the back wall, and an infrared panel heater with thermostat to keep it nice and warm in the colder months. I’ve fitted it with Ethernet and Wi-Fi, all of which are connected to the main house. It is a proper room and, in my view, for the first time in 8-years, a proper office. It was hard work but has given me an immense feeling of accomplishment. I love my new space.
There’s still a little work to do outside, such as finish the corners of the building, and add the decking to the left and front of the office, but the inside is complete.
I’ve slowly been putting together a video series showing the building as it’s been going up. At time of writing, I still have a few parts left to do but the bulk of it is done. Here’s the series playlist, which will automatically update over time:
Building my own office has allowed me to continue to stay close to my family. I still get to see my daughter at those crucial times, and now I get to see my new son just as much. Without embracing the idea of ‘work from home’ fully (and by ensuring I always had a dedicated space) I don’t think I would have been able to do it.
Tip 7: Life/Work not Work/Life
Base your work around your family and life, not your life and family around your work. Your work may or may not be a ‘lifestyle’ business, but you should always treat it as such.
Tip 8: Make Your Space Fun!
If you have dedicated space, make it fun to work in. Make it yours.
Working at Home with Children
When my daughter was at nursery, my wife would drop her off before heading into work. I then had the house to myself for the whole day, which worked really well for me – everything was in its place and everything went smoothly. Life was calm. It was all part of my routine.
When my son was born and my wife began her 10-months of maternity leave, this threw my routine completely. No longer did I have the quiet house around me, the uninterrupted working environment (even if I could close the office door), the lunch breaks where I could catch up on the latest episode of ‘Mr. Robot’. Then in September, my daughter started school, which introduced different drop-off and pick-up times to the ones we were so used to at nursery. Typically these fell at the exact times when my son needed a nap and so it was never clear who was going to be needed in what role – do I help him go to sleep, or do I go and drop-off/pick up my daughter. It all felt a bit unwieldy.
But as someone once said to me, “change brings about change”, and I realised that I just had to change how I did things and not try and shoehorn my previous routine into this new scenario – something that was never going to work.
For a while, I based my work around taking my daughter to school. I would get up, we’d have breakfast, I’d get changed, go out to the office, catch-up on a few emails and support tickets, and then go back in ready to take her to school. My wife would be inside during this time, having her breakfast and helping our daughter get ready. This allowed me to get straight into the ‘real’ work, i.e. not responding to emails, as soon as I got back from dropping my daughter off at school. This worked really well, for everyone. For a while.
My son then changed his nap times (as babies do) and it meant that he would often need a sleep part way through the school drop off. This meant that I was now needed inside the house to help but could work whilst he was asleep and my wife was doing the school drop-off instead. Usually he woke up when she arrived home, so I could just continue working without much interruption. Essentially, my day had just shifted by half-an-hour and was no longer broken up by a quick trip to school and back. Again, this worked really well, for everyone. For a while.
And that’s where we’re at now.
Tip 9: Be Flexible
If you have a family, try and be flexible with your routine. A routine that’s too strict is going to leave you frustrated when you can’t maintain it. Try and plan ahead for a few routine variations when you notice things changing.
If you work from home, or have just started a business, and have children, I highly recommend listening to the ‘Doing it for the Kids‘ podcast. It’s fun, always has interesting topics, and their community for questions and answers is helpful and supportive.
It’s Not Over
I’m still working from home. I’m sat in my garden office writing this, right now. I’m sure there are more tips I could give if I really thought hard about it, but the core ones are the ones I’ve highlighted above. I haven’t been working from home as long as some people and I’m still learning. I’m sure that in another few years, it’ll all be different again. I understand that working from home isn’t for everyone but, by finding the right balance, you can absolutely love it. I know I do.